Friday, May 31, 2024

Q&A with Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar




Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar is the author of the new book America's Black Capital: How African Americans Remade Atlanta in the Shadow of the Confederacy. He is professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Music at the University of Connecticut, and he lives in Hartford, Connecticut.


Q: What inspired you to write America’s Black Capital?


A: I am from Los Angeles, but attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, and was immediately struck by the curiously interwoven histories of the Confederacy and that of African American achievement as imprints on the city.


There were streets, neighborhoods, and monuments dedicated to Southern white nationalists and enslavers, overlapping with streets and monuments dedicated to civil rights leaders.


Moreover, Atlanta, which was once the “Imperial City” for the Ku Klux Klan, eventually elected the first black mayor of any major Southern city, and would boast more black-owned businesses, black colleges and universities, and black millionaires than any city in America. I thought, “Someone has to write this history!”


Q: The writer Jelani Cobb said of the book, “Elegantly written and exhaustively researched, America’s Black Capital is a brilliant chronicle of both Atlanta, the Southern city, and Atlanta, the metaphor for a segment of the American experience.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think that more than any concise description, this one alludes to how central the Civil War is to the book’s historical arc. Roughly, the first third of the book is on the Civil War and its immediate aftermath.


Histories of Atlanta rarely attempt such a long arc; and no history centers the Confederacy as an indelible feature on the city’s social, cultural and political character as I do here.


What is also notable is the degree to which the narrative of Atlanta’s development resonates with that of the country itself: from the origin story of strident white nationalism, to staggered steps toward expanded democracy.


From popular culture, through education and politics, there are many resonate elements in the book that provide insight to a wider national history.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: This was originally supposed to be a history of Atlanta since 1970, but I found it hard to say something new about a time period so thoroughly investigated by historians, journalists, political scientists, and others.


Eventually, I opted (perhaps naively) for an ambitious history of the city since its beginning. Of course, it added years to the project, while I researched at the Library of Congress, various archives in Atlanta, interviewed people, and poured through the secondary literature.


I was especially struck by two things: (1) how central Atlanta was to the outcome of the Civil War and (2) how effective the city’s leadership class had always been in making people believe that the lofty aspirational images of Atlanta were reality.


At the start of the Civil War, Atlanta was a finalist for the new capital of the Confederacy. It became the veritable heart of Southern war manufacturing; and its capture in 1864 turned the tide of Abraham Lincoln’s floundering reelection campaign.


Lincoln’s victory for a second term avoided what would have been a catastrophic loss for America, freedom, and humanity. Millions of people would have remained enslaved for decades more.


For more than a century after the Civil War, generations of city leadership promoted the Gate City as progressive and especially open to opportunities for all. In reality, it lagged most Southern cities in a range of indices from civil rights, to education to poverty and crime. The boosters never let facts get in the way of a good narrative!


Q: You began the book with a description of the conclusion of Georgia’s two Senate races in January 2021. Why did you choose to start there?


A: I found that from 1864, to 1964 and 2021, Atlanta has continued to have an outsized presence in the arena of national politics. It is important to anchor this narrative in the immediate example of how critical this one city has been in shaping the fate of the nation and its hold on democracy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am completing a book on the history and development of black nationalism, which will be more directed at an academic audience.


While there are some chapters that may appeal to laypeople (such as an exploration of how popular television shows engage components of black nationalist goals), I think that this book’s market is likely scholarly, unlike America’s Black Capital.


I am also finishing an edited book on African American urban history since the Great Migration. This will be the first history of African Americans and the city that solely centers its focus on the decades after 1970, the end of the migration of millions from the rural South into northern and western cities, which started in 1915.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I want readers to know that America’s Black Capital offers a broad historical examination of more than black Atlanta.


It is a narrative of contested notions of democracy, freedom, and citizenship. It investigates the resilience of the Confederacy on local and national politics. It offers insight into urban history, popular culture, and commentary on the origins of terms and ideas that readers have heard about (like “Forty Acres and a Mule” or W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth”). It is a rewarding read!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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